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When Toddlers Act Like...Toddlers

When 3-year-old Madeline Offenhauser went to a talent show at her big brother's school, she treated the audience to a sideshow. "Madeline went up by the stage to sit on the floor with the kids," says her mom, Maggie. "The next thing I know, she's got her dress flipped over her belly, and her bottom is bare. All I could say to the other moms is that I swear she had underpants on when we left the house."

Oh, the mischievous toddler. Once kids can walk and talk  -- but not very well  -- they excel at the sorts of things that embarrass, irritate, and (sometimes) amuse. But the thing is, your toddler isn't really being bad. That would imply that he actually understands what it means to behave. He doesn't. A toddler lacks some of the internal mechanisms needed to control himself, which accounts for a lot of why he acts out. He'll also misbehave when he wants something  -- but doesn't have the words to ask for it.

Until he does, should you sit back and let him act like, well, a toddler? Yes and no. You have to steel yourself to a certain amount of trouble, but you can also teach him better ways to get what he's after (which, when he remembers, will result in slightly better behavior). Here's how to handle some of toddlers' most common misdeeds:

Refusing to Share

What they do: Try to convince a toddler to loosen his viselike grip on the fire truck, and you may have a bigger problem on your hands (like a tantrum that'll be soothed only by every single truck in the room). What's especially frustrating to many moms is the fickle nature of a toddler's ability to share. As Teresa Buck of Lamar, Missouri, explains, "Sure, Clara will share  -- if she's in the mood. If you get her on a day that she's not, forget about it. She'll start slapping." And she usually finds out when 2-year-old Clara isn't in the mood when it's too late.

Why they do it: Young children can't understand sharing. They identify themselves by what they have, so asking them to share is like telling them to cut off an arm.

What you can do: Try saying "Take turns" instead of "Share." If you say, "You need to share," he'll think that he needs to give away the plastic yellow phone for good. Instead, try "You'll have a turn with the phone for five minutes, then Sally will get a turn with the phone for five minutes." He doesn't know what "five minutes" means, but he'll get the point, especially if you use a timer. Somehow, kids respect the authority of a ring or a beep more than the sound of Mom's voice.

You can also try to avoid confrontation. "Respect your child's right to have his own things," says Ruth Peters, Ph.D., author of It's Never Too Soon to Discipline. Before kids arrive for a playdate, let your child pick five things he doesn't want the others to touch and help him find a safe hideaway for them. Then explain that all the other toys in the playroom are for everyone to share  -- er, take turns with.

Lisa Peters O'Brien, a mom of three, lives in New York.